What I Learned from My Nana’s Nursing Home

nanaIn the final years of her life, my Nana lived in a nursing home. When she first moved in, she told me about the day that the social worker came for her mental/emotional evaluation. “Do you ever think about leaving here?” the woman asked. Nana, with her deep sincerity, said, “Oh heavens no! There’s only one way out of here and I’m not ready for that yet!”

And she was right: there was only one way out for all of them. Nursing homes are a terrible place for just that reason. Everyone there is failing, and they know it. Their bodies and minds are deteriorating — some faster than others — and all are enduring the pain that accompanies the loss of their mental and physical independence. But the sadness and embarrassment of deterioration is out of our control.

But what always struck me as the worst indignity was one that was chosen for them. It was the television. Televisions blared from every patient room, from every common area. She would struggle to hear me over the news when I called. It was difficult to have a conversation in the common area when I would visit. There was nowhere to go for quiet.

What those televisions said so clearly was that these people were no longer worth interacting with. It was clear that they were being parked there to wait. And because the televisions were so loud, there was almost no way that the able-minded could interact with each other if they had wanted to. To me, it was heartbreaking to watch my gregarious Nana retreat into her shell as news anchors and commercial announcers shouted loud and often confusing messages from the screen. Like children, the elderly need a balanced television diet, and someone to help them sort through what they’re seeing.

It’s been two years and I still think about this a lot. It’s fundamentally changed my feelings about television, and makes me wonder how elder care can be done better.

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